The Spying Egg

Scientists place a silicon-filled computerized egg in a swan nest to learn about the birds’ hatching process.

Aug 15, 2012
Jef Akst

By sawing off the top of a swan's egg and cleaning out the innards, Stephen Ellwood of the University of Oxford’s wildlife conservation research unit created the perfect swan spy. Inside the hollowed egg, he placed a miniature computer, then planted the “cyber egg” among a group of swans at the 1,000-year-old Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset.

“These kinds of devices make observations that were impossible, possible,” he told BBC News. “People just can't go into the places that these devices can go.”

The cyber egg recorded its temperature eight times per second, using mobile phone technology to transmit the data to a nearby base station. The researchers were hoping to understand how the swans incubate their eggs. A swan can take up to 2 days to lay 4–6 eggs, but the baby swans, called cygnets, all hatch around the same time. Thus, it appeared that swans do not keep the first-laid eggs warm enough to develop as fast as possible, “yet some preliminary observations during the laying period indicate that a female swan does keep her eggs at least partly warm some of the time,” Chris Perrins, of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology at the University of Oxford, told the BBC.